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Jimmy Carter set a virtuous example as president. To today’s voters, that may not matter

Analysis by John Blake, CNN

(CNN) — Former President Jimmy Carter shocked voters in 1976 when he admitted during a Playboy magazine interview that he had “looked on a lot of women with lust” and “committed adultery in my heart many times.”

Carter, who was running for the presidency at the time, would narrowly win his White House bid. But he would latersay that public outrage over his confession “nearly cost me the election.”

The 99-year-old Carter, in hospice care and “coming to the end” of his days, is a humanitarian and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. He embodied virtue — defined as moral and civic excellence. Yet his one-term presidency is considered by many an “epic failure.”

If you want to know how political culture has changed since Carter’s time, though, consider the contrast between the soft-spoken Georgian and another recent president.

Former President Donald Trump was found guilty last month on all 34 counts of falsifying business records to cover up a sex scandal involving a porn star. He is the first former president in US history to be convicted of a felony. Despite that, polls show Trump has a good shot at being elected again this November.

There’s been a lot of speculation about the fallout from Trump’s conviction. Commentators ask if the verdict will make a difference in the polls. Will it trigger political violence? How can a convicted felon run a “law and order” campaign?

But looking at Trump’s conviction through the lens of Carter’s political legacy raises a more disturbing question:

What if virtue is overrated in politics?

What if former first lady Michelle Obama’s famous slogan — “When they go low, we go high” — was wrong? The phrase went viral after she used it as a rallying cry during a 2016 speech supporting Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Some of the most prominent political leaders in America today seem to excel at going low. They makeexplicitly racist,sexist and antisemitic statements, andshred political norms for partisan gain — with little apparent dent in popularity, at least among their base of supporters.

Perhaps Carter’s final days also herald the passing of another era: when Americans expected their political leaders to demonstrate a certain level of private and public decency.

The value of political virtue changed long before Trump

CNN raised this question with some of the nation’s leading political scientists and scholars. Their short answer: Virtue matters in ways that many Americans may not realize.

Some Americans ascribe virtue in the political realm to leaders such as Carter who avoid scandals triggered by lust or greed. Carter promised the American people he would never lie to them, and cherished and respected his wife Rosalynn of  77 years. There was no whiff of private scandal during his term in office, which ended in early 1981.

Political virtue, though, is not just what leaders do — it’s what citizens demand, says  Scott Waller, chair of the political science department at Biola University in California.

“The issue is not really the standard that Jimmy Carter set in presidential discourse as much as it was a standard that was generally expected from the American people,” Waller says.

Waller cites Gary Hart, who was the frontrunner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination before his campaign imploded after ascandal over an extramarital affair. Many Americans thought at the time that Hart’s affair revealed something unsettling about his character that disqualified him from the Oval Office.

Such concerns seem almost quaint today, Waller says. A politician today can get criticized for trying to act too virtuously, he says.

Waller cites the example of former Vice President Mike Pence, who said he honored his wife in part by refusing to take any private meeting with a woman because it could hint at impropriety. Pence, an evangelical Christian, was following the “Billy Graham Rule,” named for the legendary evangelist who would not meet alone with a woman other than his wife to avoid temptation or any appearance of evil. Many pastors also follow that rule today.

“Instead of seeing this as a commitment of a man of integrity seeking to honor his wife, it was viewed as some kind of nod to an oppressive patriarchal past,” Waller says.

Critics said Pence’s statement was a false virtue that perpetuated sexism by limiting women’s career mobility and reducing women to instruments of sexual temptation.

Ask people why standards of political virtue have changed, and you’ll get different answers. Some say it happened during the 1960s, when the US government lied to the American public about the Vietnam War. Others say it happened in the ‘70s with President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal, which played a crucial role in Carter’s election.

Nixon engaged in multiple abuses of office that involved wiretapping political opponents’ phones, stealing documents and hatching a plan to instruct the CIA to impede an FBI’s investigation. He later flat-out lied in an attempt to cover up his crimes.

“It was a black eye in American history, a major erosion in trust in government,” says Andrew P. Hogue, an associate dean at Baylor University and the author of “Stumping God: Reagan, Carter, and the Invention of a Political Faith.” “The very foundation of a successful democracy is that we have to be able to trust that the people we elect are doing what we hope they will do.”

Still others say American standards of political virtue eroded in the ‘90s, when President Bill Clinton had an affair with a White House intern — or again in 2016 with Trump’s election. Some say it’s happening now with widespread denial about the January 6 insurrection.

The result is that we routinely get politicians acting in ways they never would have before, Waller says.

“There’s an old saying — you get the politicians you deserve,” he says.

But political virtue is more than just a politician’s private behavior. A politician can have a pristine personal life but lack political virtue if he or she does something that jeopardizes the welfare and stability of their country.

The ancient Romans believed virtuous political leaders are willing to abandon self-interest in favor of the common good, saysSarah Purcell, a political historian at Grinnell College in Iowa. The nation’s first president, George Washington, was such a leader, she says. He could have declared himself king after the end of the Revolutionary War, but declined to run for a third term, allowing democracy to take root, Purcell says.

“He [Washington] was a great military leader,” adds Purcell, author of “Spectacle of Grief.” “But it’s also the fact that he was willing to voluntarily give up military and political power that also strengthened his virtue.”

Why virtue in today’s politics may be overrated

Here’s an uncomfortable truth: Some of our greatest and most influential presidents didn’t demonstrate virtue in their private and political lives.

Washington may have displayed political virtue, but he lacked personal virtue in one vital respect: Heenslaved other human beings.

John F. Kennedy was said to have had multiple extramarital affairs.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had a longtime mistress.

Bill Clinton was impeached after he had an affair in the Oval Office and then lied about it to cover it up. He left office with a booming economy and high approval ratings.

Some would argue that a lack of virtue can make political leaders more effective.

Take Lyndon Johnson, one of the most influential presidents in US history. He helped end Jim Crow segregation by championing the passage of  three monumental civil rights bills. He’s often hailed as a “master of the Senate,” someone who knew how to get laws passed. He also developed a reputation as a dirty political operator who allegedly stole his election to the US Senate, bullied his staff and was ruthless in his pursuit of power.

“He would talk sympathetically to civil rights supporters, and tell a Southern senator” to get ready to take up that ‘n**** bill, Anthony Lewis wrote in a New York Times essay on Johnson.

Critics say a contemporary master of the Senate, former Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, is also known for his “willingness to put the pursuit of power before principle.”

The Kentucky Republican was instrumental in shaping the conservative majority on the current Supreme Court, which has delivered one policy win after another for the GOP. McConnell denied Merrick Garland, then-President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, a Senate confirmation hearing in the spring of 2016 because he said it was too close to the presidential election. But when liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died less than two months before the 2020 election, McConnell discovered an exception to his own rule to seat Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett.

So what was different in earlier eras? It was the concept of shame, scholars say. Political leaders back then at least tried to shield their lack of virtue from the public, says Ryan Barilleaux, a political scientist at Miami University in Ohio.

“There used to be this attitude among Americans that presidents were to be held to a standard and that presidents and presidential candidates certainly tried to publicly live up to that standard, even if in private life they didn’t,” Barilleaux says.

Trump is a prime example of how those expectations have changed. The former president has along record of lying in public, makingracist statements andboasting about sexually assaulting women. He also has been accused of inciting an insurrection to overturn a presidential election he lost.

And he yet he remains an overwhelmingly popular figure in the GOP.

So why do Americans today support politicians with questionable virtue? Barilleaux says it’s because more voters now care more about partisan victories than virtue. They rationalize their support of unscrupulous political leaders by heeding the catchphrase Netflix once used to promote the main character in its “House of Cards” series. It describes Frank Underwood, the show’s slippery political operator, as, “Bad, for the greater good.”

Why virtue is still vital in American politics

One can also make theMachiavellian argument that virtue can weaken a political leader’s ability to get things done. Carter had problems beyond his control thatdoomed his presidency: The Iran hostage crisis, runaway inflation, and an economy headed toward a recession.

He almost sounded relieved when he left the presidency. He once quipped after leaving office, “It is very nice now when people wave at me — they use all their fingers.”

Carter’s moral inflexibility  became a political liability, some say. One Carter biographersaid, “Righteousness was both the key to his success and his greatest weakness.”

The late Walter Mondale, who served as Carter’s vice president, recalled this trait once during an interview.

“Many times the one argument that I would find would ruin a person’s case is when he’d say, ‘This is good for you politically,’” Mondale said. “He didn’t want to hear that. He didn’t want to think that way and he didn’t want his staff to think that way. He wanted to know what’s right.”

A lack of political virtue can boost leaders in the short term, but over time it can drag them down.Johnson’s win-at-all cost mentality helped him score landmark political victories, but it also destroyed his presidency. He couldn’t tell the American peoplethe truth about the cost and futility of fighting the Vietnam War. He lost his chance at presidential greatness. Johnson didn’t run again for a second term because he had lost credibility with the American people.

Virtue is the connective tissue that holds a democracy together. When leaders and citizens abandon it, democracycrumbles. The founding fathers thought that democracy was impossible without having virtuous citizens.

“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom,” Benjamin Franklin oncesaid. “As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”

A lack of virtue is also bad for business, the author Arthur C. Brooks wrote in a recent essay.

He pointed to a famous 1958 study that compared a small town in Italy that was filled with dishonesty and incivility with a comparable town of the same size in the US. Poverty and corruption were widespread in the Italian town. But the American town, which had “high social trust, a culture of honesty, and openness across political differences,” prospered economically and politically, Brooks wrote.

“To establish trust is hard; wrecking it is simpler, and we seem to be doing that in the United States,” Brooks wrote.

A lack of virtue in government can even erode patriotism. People are less willing to serve or die for a county they believe is led by politically corrupt leaders. A recent poll found that a majority of young voters in the US believe that “nearly all politicians are corrupt, and make money from their political power.” Only 7% disagreed. The lead pollster said today’s young voters see the US as “a dying empire led by bad people.”

The haunting question Carter may leave behind

Carter’s exemplary life offers proof that political virtue can pay off in the long run. More historians are saying now his presidency looks better in retrospect.

Carter brought true diversity to the executive branch and judiciary, brokered a Middle East peace deal, doubled the size of the national park system and was the first head of state  address global warming, the author Jonathan Alter wrote in a recentessay. Carter also established a global standard for how governments should treat its people through his human rights campaign.

“Carter spent only 12 of his 98 years in public office (four in the Georgia state senate, four as governor, four as president),” Alter wrote. “And yet, for all his shortcomings, he left a legacy of service, decency, intelligence, and integrity that contrasts sharply with many politicians of our own time. Let’s hope we see his likes again.”

But that won’t happen if Americans don’t demand virtuous political leaders.

“The standards of civility, kindness, empathy, and tolerance that Carter set for himself never really caught on in American politics,” saysKerriann Stout, a history professor who also teaches constitutional law at Pace University in New York.

“Carter’s politics may have been what this country needed,” she says, but “time has demonstrated it is not what it wanted.”

As we prepare to say goodbye to Carter, we may also be bidding farewell to a bygone era: When more Americans cared how politicians carried themselves in private and in public.

Carter’s waning days remind us of not only what he stood for, but what we’ve lost.

John Blake is the author of the award-winning memoir, “More Than I Imagined: What a Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew.”

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